August is Valley Fever Awareness Month in California and the state health department is reminding people to be cognizant of the infectious and potentially deadly disease.
Valley Fever, also known as coccidioidomycosis, or cocci, is caused by the spore of a fungus that grows in certain types of soil in the Southwest United States, and in some areas of Central and South America. People get infected by breathing in spores contained in dust that gets into the air when it is windy or when soil is disturbed, such as digging in dirt during construction or gardening.
Each year, the infection affects hundreds to thousands of people in the state with the highest rates reported from the southern Central Valley region including Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, Merced, and Tulare counties. The disease is endemic to the San Joaquin Valley. Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties have also had high rates of reported cases.
The annual number of reported cases of Valley Fever in California varies. In the past decade, the highest number of 5,217 cases was reported in 2011. Since then, the incidence has declined. There were 2,217 cases reported in 2014.
"Valley Fever is an ongoing concern in California and other areas of the Southwest United States," said Dr. Karen Smith, the California Department of Public Health's director and state health officer. "It is important for people living in Valley Fever areas to take steps to avoid breathing in dusty air, such as staying indoors when it is windy."
Although most of the people infected with Valley Fever will never develop any symptoms, about 40 percent will show signs of the disease, according to the CDPH. The symptoms can range from feeling flu-like and can last a month or more. Most people recover fully and develop a lifelong immunity, but some will develop a more severe version of the disease, which can include pneumonia and infection of the brain, joints, bone, skin or other organs.
While anyone can get Valley Fever, those most at-risk for severe disease include people 60 years or older, African Americans, Filipinos, pregnant women, and people with diabetes or conditions that weaken their immune system. People who live, work or travel in Valley Fever areas are also at a higher risk of getting infected, especially if they work or participate in activities where soil is disturbed.
Researchers are attempting to develop a vaccine for Valley Fever, but at this time none exist.
The best way to reduce the risk of illness is to avoid breathing in dirt or dust in areas where Valley Fever is common. Stay inside and keep windows and doors closed when it is windy outside and the air is dusty. While driving, keep car windows closed and use recirculating air conditioning, if available. For those who must be outdoors in dusty air, consider wearing an N95 mask or respirator and refrain from disturbing the soil, whenever possible.